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Jeb's Rules for School Reform (Gov. Jeb Bush)

When I took office in 1999, I made it my highest priority to provide a quality education to all of Florida’s children.  For the past seven years, I have had the honor of working with thousands of educators, policymakers, parents and students to make that happen by bringing true reform to Florida’s public education system.  Five rules have guided our success.

Rule number one applies long before the ballots are counted on Election Day.  Simply, when you run for office, you need to say what you’re going to do and then do what you said you would.  Candidates who aren’t willing to take political risks won’t take the policy risks required to drive real change.

By taking a stand during our campaign, my running mate and I gave voters a chance to examine and debate our plan to transform Florida schools. As a result, our election came with a mandate to implement a comprehensive education reform based on high standards and expectations, clear measurement and accountability, and rewards and consequences for results. 

Since 1999, we have eliminated social promotion, increased the exit exam requirements for high school graduation, raised standards for school performance, and made reading instruction a primary focus in the early grades and, more recently, in our middle schools.

The second rule of reform is that if you don’t measure, you don’t care. You must be willing to measure the outcomes of reforms, and equally important, you must be willing to share the results – the ones you’re proud of, as well as the ones that show more work is needed – with the rest of the world.

We know our reforms are working because we measure progress.  Today, Florida’s graduation rate is up from 60 percent to 72 percent, our drop-out rate is down by half, and our students are making greater learning gains than their national counterparts. The biggest gains are being made by our minority students, bringing us one step closer to closing the achievement gap in Florida.

Third, big reforms require long-term commitment. We’ve been testing 4th grade reading since the 1998-99 school year. At that time, only 51 percent of our 4th graders could read at grade level.  Two years later, the number had risen to just 53 percent.  After six years, 71 percent of all Florida 4th graders have the ability to pick up a book and read it independently.  It’s the cumulative effect of incremental improvement that creates significant progress.

Another rule – the fourth – is to communicate what you’re doing, especially to parents. Education reform can only be sustained when families know it is working. Florida gives parents a comprehensive report card tracking their child’s performance, along with the school’s performance compared to state and national standards, with explanations of each.

The fifth rule is that success is never final and reform is never finished. You are either in ascendance or decline, so if you aren’t moving forward you are losing ground as well as opportunities for students.

Right now, we are working to implement the largest reform package since the sweeping changes made in 1999.  These reforms include differentiated pay and performance-based pay to encourage educators to teach in economically challenged schools and reward teachers for improving student performance.  We are also proposing a state financial investment that complements local efforts to attract and retain talented teachers.

Our proposed reforms will bring rigor to middle schools and relevance to high school.  To build on the intensive instruction of elementary school and better prepare for high school, students in grades six through eight will be required to take three years each of math, science, language arts and social studies.

We are also revamping high school to better prepare students for postsecondary education and the workforce.  In addition to completing core classes, students will be able to major or minor in a subject area such as math, science, fine arts, or career and vocational skills, depending on their goals and interests.  The opportunity keeps them interested in their education and better prepares them for their future.

It took a full generation of school decline to bring us today’s problems, and it will take at least half that long to fix them. In the process, Florida gives parents the power to move their children from a chronically failing school to another school of their choice. We also empower students with disabilities to find the most supportive educational environment, whether public or private. 

Our choice programs include corporate tax credit scholarships for use at private schools so low-income parents have the same options that wealthier families have always had when it comes to educating their children. Equal opportunity starts with equal access to all available education options.

Researchers from the Manhattan Institute, Harvard and Cornell have independently studied Florida’s private school choice programs. All three studies concluded that the threat of vouchers actually creates the greatest improvement in struggling schools. Given the choice between losing students and raising the quality of education, schools rise to the challenge and make tremendous gains.

The Florida Supreme Court recently struck down one of Florida’s three choice programs on the grounds that it created competition for public schools – the very competition that has helped drive improvement in Florida’s schools. The ruling not only threatens the future of the 733 students in the Opportunity Scholarship program, but in varying degrees could also impact the 29,641 other low-income, minority and disabled students who currently use tuition vouchers.

School choice benefits all students whether they take advantage of the opportunity or not. Our ongoing reform efforts will include changing state law, or the Florida Constitution, to protect school choice programs from activist court rulings.

Jeb Bush is governor of Florida.